The End of the American Graduation Initiative

Buried beneath the much-deserved hullaballoo over the passage of health care reform were big changes that the reconciliation bill makes to the federal student loan program. (Fortunately, Jonathan Chait has been on top of it, as he recently wrote in a blog entry for The New Republic.) The law will take much of the savings generated by moving from private, subsidized lending to direct federal lending and use it on an expanded Pell Grant, which should help more low- and moderate-income students access that oversubscribed tuition assistance program.

Less noticed, however, is a provision that was in the House-passed Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) this fall, but dropped from the final version that passed last night. It would have implemented an Obama administration proposal–the American Graduation Initiative (AGI)–announced last summer to invest roughly $12 billion in community colleges over 10 years, with the goal of greatly improving their performance in getting students through to earn degrees and credentials, and increasing the number of community college graduates by 5 million over that time. Given the state of the economy, community colleges are being asked to do more than ever without the resources and strategies to match. All of which made the plan especially timely. But with Pell Grant spending up due to the poor state of the economy, and the pressure to keep the total cost of the bill down while achieving expanded health insurance coverage and deficit reduction, the AGI got left on the cutting-room floor.

So while there’s much to admire in one of the singular domestic legislative achievements in recent memory, let’s also say a word of remembrance for the community college agenda. These institutions have been the neglected stepchild of federal higher ed policy for so long, that it was really a remarkable moment when the administration and the House moved to make a substantial bet on their future. It’s not likely that community colleges will see another opportunity like this one for some time. And with their substantial budgetary reliance on state and local funding, the road ahead—even with expanded Pell Grants—isn’t pretty.

Community colleges weren’t totally left out of the final bill. They will receive $2 billion over the next few years to help dislocated workers access training programs, and that’s surely important work given the depressed nature of the economy in many parts of the country. But that’s more of the traditional stuff, and falls well short of the potential that the AGI had for transforming the nation’s two-year institutions, and valuing them as we do their four-year counterparts. R.I.P. for now, AGI, and here’s hoping this isn’t the last we hear about an expanded role for community colleges in national higher ed policy.